CFL News
December 14, 2011

Protesters send CPS board members scurrying

Parents, teachers and community members protest loudly the proposed school closings at the Chicago Public Schools board meeting

Source: Chicago Tribune

By Joel Hood and Noreen Ahmed-Ullah

In a chaotic scene at Chicago Public Schools' headquarters Wednesday, the school board abruptly ended its meeting and went into closed session after being shouted down by a couple dozen angry parents and union representatives upset over planned school closures, consolidations and turnarounds.

At least 10 people were escorted by security out of the building after a systematic protest in defiance of the board's actions. The proposed school realignments are to come before the board for official action in February.

"Nearly 40 percent of new schools that have replaced ones that closed are performing at the lowest levels," one of the protesters said. "We see through the sound bites. You have betrayed the public trust. You have failed Chicago's children."

One by one, members of the audience stood to read from a prepared speech denouncing CPS' actions and policies. They interrupted CPS chief Jean-Claude Brizard's presentation to the board several times.

After several interruptions, board president David Vitale abruptly closed the meeting and the board followed him off the floor.

Before he left, Vitale told the crowd that he hoped they'd "gotten it out of their system," prompting more jeers.

"We need you out of our system," one man yelled back.

"I am fed up," said retired CPS teacher Howard Emmer, one of those escorted out. "Brizard comes in, he's new. But these are all old policies. Charters, turnarounds, school closings are all failed policies."

Parents, teachers and union representativeshad  turned out in force Wednesday morning at CPS headquarters to protest the proposed school closures and turnaround projects that could bring hundreds of layoffs.

"They have ignored parent concerns in this process, they've neglected teacher voice and undermined student progress," said Chicago Teachers Union spokesman Jackson Potter prior to the school board meeting.

"Today we stand before you to demand that the Board of Education immediately end all of its moves to push school actions upon the community. We also are asking them to stop charter expansion and to stop handing over these schools to politically connected, under-performing charter networks."

Board members were expected to vote Wednesday on renewing charters for six different networks. The board will vote on a series of school closures, turnarounds and consolidations in February.Supporters of some of those schools crowded CPS' district office with signs and a clear message of defiance for the board.

"Our school's academic performance -- despite the historical instability and administrative changes, the dismantling of the local school council by CPS, and the continuous lack of resources and funding -- has achieved more than adequate gains," said Sharisa Lee-Vaval, a parent of three children at Wendell Smith Elementary, a South Side school targeted for turnaround. "Due to the dedicated commitment of students, parents and teachers, Wendell Smith is on a path to success. Now is the time to support us with resources and funding that is so sorely needed."

Hannah Richardson, a Montessori teacher at Stagg Elementary, another school slated for turnaround, said she worries that such specialty early childhood education will be cut in the turnaround process.

"Our school has worked very hard to get a Montessori program into the school, a program that is often only offered to families of well-off children who can afford tuition to private schools," Richardson said. "We want our school to continue on the path that it is, where we are increasing scores all the time."

Claudia Moreno, a bilingual teacher at Piccolo Elementary, said close-outs and turnarounds are unfairly targeting minority students from low-income communities.

"We need to stop targeting those in the community that are of color and are of cultural diversity," Moreno said. "We need to support our schools, not close them. We can function if the board and the legislature gives us the funding we need to make our schools great."

Jitu Brown, a member of the local school council at Dyett High School, a struggling South Side high school scheduled to begin a three-year phase-out next year, said the board's actions over time to move students from one school to another and strip funding from others have gutted once high-performing schools in the Bronzeville neighborhood.  

"When will we ask the question 'why' and stop believing the stereotypes about black and brown children? We love our children as much as anybody else."

CTU President Karen Lewis said that she has no idea who organized the protest. "I didn't have anything to do with it, but I certainly enjoyed it," she said.

In the awkward moments after the board left, representatives from the teachers union organized their own meeting with the 100 or so people still in the building.

Union Vice President Jesse Sharkey went down the list of scheduled speakers, most calling attention to proposed closures or turnarounds that effect their children. Sharkey called people to the front of the room to air their grievances. They stood at the podium, addressing their concerns to the empty seats where the board members would be.

Some wished the empty seats a good morning and others chided board members for leaving without hearing the public's complaints.

"I've had many hard days as a teacher and one thing is that when you've had a hard day in class you can't just take your ball and go home," Sharkey told the empty seats.

Angela Dillon, a teacher at Marquette Elementary School, which is slated to be turned around, said gutting schools is not the answer.

"CPS is filled with brilliant people and I'm confident there's a better way to deal with this," Dillon said.

Lewis spoke before the empty seats, saying charter schools had no track record of improving student performance and suggested political ties, not sound education policy, was behind the push to expand charter networks.

Union spokesman Jackson Potter reiterated that the union was not behind Wednesday's uprising. He called it an "organic expression" from a parents who feel like their voices have not been heard.

"You see people here who've reached a boiling point," Potter said. "Certainly we hope that (the board) hears this. They're saying, 'We're desperate to have you hear us.' "